Hope for Parkinson’s Disease

Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox are famous people who have Parkinson’s disease, and one in 500 people in Canada will join their ranks. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a degenerative neurological disease that slowly affects the ability to control movement.  Symptoms can include tremors, difficulty walking and speaking.  Early symptoms can include decreased thirst, loss of smell, constipation, anxiety and decreased arm swinging while walking. This condition was thought to be chronic and progressive and could only be managed with medications.  Now, with a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to nerve cell damage, there are targeted strategies that can slow or even reverse the disease to some degree. Many of these principles are just smart preventative lifestyle strategies for all of us who want to protect our brains from degeneration.

Dr. Laurie Mischley is a naturopathic doctor who works with people with Parkinson’s disease in Seattle.  The average Parkinson’s patient has a symptom score of 500 at the time of diagnosis in a standardized test for Parkinson’s, and their score goes up by 38 points per year on average.  In contrast, Dr. Mischley’s patients have an average 200-300 point decrease in their score over one year of treatment.  Those numbers got my attention when she spoke at a recent brain health conference I attended.

Dr. Mischley is emphatic that Parkinson’s does not have to be a progressive, irreversible disease.  Progression can be slowed and sometimes reversed to a degree if we seek to understand what is stressing the neurons and remove those stresses while supporting optimal brain health with targeted lifestyle strategies and natural medicines.  Dr. Mischley says that by the time PD is diagnosed, the processes that created it have been in the works for twenty years or more.  Science has shown us that risk factors include drinking well water with high manganese or pesticide runoff, head trauma, heavy metal exposure (welders), dairy consumption, pesticide exposure, certain viral or fungal infections, intestinal microbiome imbalances, autoimmune processes, high iron, low B12, smoking, drinking and more.  If we can identify and target these neurological stress factors, we can improve brain health.

Lab tests can help us identify the stress factors associated with Parkinson’s disease.  These include inflammatory markers (CRP), blood sugar work up, iron, vitamin B12, food allergies, heavy metal testing, intestinal testing, brain auto-antibody testing, vitamin D, oxidative stress tests, (low) cholesterol, homocysteine, DHEA-S, thyroid function and more. Naturopathic physicians can order these types of lab tests and provide thorough analysis.

Dietary interventions include eating more plant-based foods, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds and healthy oils.  Fish and organic chicken are encouraged, while dairy, red meat, flour and sugar are discouraged. Exercise can play an important role in Parkinson’s treatment, and our local recreation centres are providing classes specifically for this condition. Natural medicines are also vital for creating an environment in the brain where the nerves can thrive. Coenzyme Q10 and fish oil are associated with better outcomes in PD.  Glutathione precursors provide protection against oxidative stress in the brain, which is critical for PD.  Targeting heavy metal elimination, autoimmune balancing, gut microbiome restoration, mitochondrial repair, and homocysteine-lowering are the types of individualized treatments on which naturopathic physicians can coach their patients.  Medications that promote dopamine are an important aspect of the management of PD, but knowing that you can also address the causative factors and take charge of the progression of this condition is empowering.

Mitochondrial Function Key to Health

Have you ever wondered why the body ages or why you seem to have less energy as you age? It turns out the answer lies deep within the cells in a tiny organelle called the mitochondria. They are the energy producers of the body. They turn our food into the fundamental fuel that drives cellular activity. It is in the mitochondria that carbohydrates, protein, and fat are metabolized, producing cellular energy called ATP. The ATP provide the energy to allow cells to do what they do; it keeps the brain working, fires muscles, repairs tissues, and more.

The more energy a certain tissue requires, the more mitochondria those cells contain. The brain and heart have the highest concentration of mitochondria because they require large amounts of oxygen and energy. The heart muscle is packed with mitochondria. Any dysfunction on the level of the mitochondria has a significant impact on the functioning of these organs especially.

As we age, our mitochondria produce about 40% less ATP and therefore our organs feel the effects of decreased energy production. Mitochondria get damaged over time. The rate of their decline can be influenced by a number of lifestyle factors.

Malfunctioning at the level of the mitochondria has now been shown to be at the heart of a host of degenerative diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease; neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, as well as cancer. Mitochondria dysfunction has also been shown to be related to chronic fatigue syndrome and has implications for affecting athletic performance. Interventions to stabilize mitochondrial function and enhance ATP production will be the new medicine of the future.

The formation of ATP is dependent upon proper intake of vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and plant based nutrients. Deficiencies of these nutrients can alter mitochondrial function. Antioxidants like Vitamins C, E and A protect the mitochondria. Other nutrients like resveratrol from grape skins, green tea EGCG and curcumin from tumeric also have strong protective effects.

Exercise protects the mitochondria as well. A well-trained athlete has more than twice the muscle mitochondria than a sedentary person. Exercise stimulates the production of more mitochondria in the cells thus providing an anti-aging effect, especially where we need it most: the brain and heart.
However, those protective mechanisms can be overwhelmed by additional sources of bodily stress, leaving the mitochondria susceptible to damage. A diet high in processed food and high in fat as well as excess alcohol can all damage the mitochondria. Exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and some pharmaceuticals, like statin drugs for cholesterol, can damage mitochondria.

The heart has to produce 13 to 35 pounds of ATP per day to sustain its approximately 86,000 daily beats. There has been extensive research to find ways to enhance mitochondrial function to maintain the ATP critical to heart function. In addition to exercise and high plant-based diets, natural medicines have been shown to help. CoEnzyme Q10 is a nutrient that fuels the pathway that makes ATP. In 2013, the European Society of Cardiology stated that it is the first “drug” to significantly improve heart failure in over a decade. This statement was based on research showing that there were very significant reductions in mortality in people with advanced heart failure who took CoEnzyme Q10. Magnesium and l-carnitine have also been shown to reduce death after heart attacks and more. In a recent Mayo Clinic review, acute heart patients who took L-Carnitine had a 27% reduction in all-cause mortality, a 65% reduction in arrhythmias, and a 40% reduction in angina symptoms.

Naturopathic physicians seek to understand the underlying cause of disease and use treatments that target those mechanisms. In the case of neurological disease, cancer, heart disease and more, interventions that repair mitochondrial function can help give the body the fuel it needs to promote healthy tissue function. There is so much more to health than managing symptoms with drugs. Take charge of your health with a great lifestyle and natural medicines.